"Does Santa really 'know if you are sleeping'?"asked my middle daughter Sally, then 5, in last year's run-up to Christmas. We were driving somewhere, just the two of us.
"I don't know," I said. "He could know in some magic way."
"I think he just looks to see if any lights are on," she said.
"Could be," I said.
There was a minute of silence while Sally mentally examined a couple more lines of the song, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." For her, these were mystic verses of holy writ, handed down to edify the faithful. But Sally is a freethinker. "I don't think he 'knows if you've been bad or good,'" she said. "I think he doesn't care. I think he just brings you presents no matter what."
Sally is pretty good, but not so good that she doesn't feel threatened when someone says, "You'd better watch out."
At age 4, Sally sat on Santa's knee at a Christmas party, and when he asked what she wanted, she told him, "A glass of water." As silly comedy, this went over pretty well, and that's what I thought it was.
But when I quizzed her later, Sally explained that water is the lump-of-coal type of present that Santa would leave for bad children. By asking for water, Sally was trying to meet the issue head-on so she and Santa could laugh it off together, elf to elf.
When Sally's big sister Marie had been 8, she asked me to mail a letter she'd written to Santa. "May I read it to see what you're asking for?" I asked.
"No," she said. "This is an experiment. I want to see if there really is a Santa Claus." Her faith in Santa was weak, but her faith that her dad would respect federal law and not open Santa's mail was strong (and misplaced).
It wasn't long before Marie and I had a talk, and she dedicated herself to helping her younger sisters enjoy the magic of the season.
Last summer, I overheard her telling Sally that Santa has magic cameras in every home to monitor the behavior of each child. (I'd only known about the ones he has in banks, stores, schools, parking lots, tunnels and on street corners and bridges.)
But Sally has a suspicious mind. One evening last spring she was sitting beside me on a couch, speculating upon the Tooth Fairy. "I think a reg'lar person puts money under the pillow and takes the tooth," she said, then suddenly turned and pointed at me: "It's you!" Shocked innocence was written all over my face, and Sally backed off.
This year, Sally is asking Santa for "a Kit doll" - one of the expensive American Girls dolls that are linked to a series of books for young readers. She has asked a mall Santa for the doll, but he was not a Santa to inspire confidence. So to make sure, she's going to send a letter to the North Pole.
Our youngest, Wendy, age 3, communicates with Santa the same way she does with anyone else she sees in storybooks. She talks right to the picture. In the middle of being read to, she'll say, "Hey Santa, y'know what?" She has no trouble believing. She also believes that our neighbor's collie can talk and that her dad is the king of the world.
It's wonderful to live among believers. Sometimes I like to hold the round head of one of my little girls in my hands and think about Santa and all the elves and reindeer that live in there. I hate to think there'll ever be a day when there are no more heads around here that contain such marvelous stuff. In the meantime, we'll be putting out our cookies and milk on Christmas Eve and looking for circumstantial evidence the next morning.
And this year I'm conducting my own experiment. If Sally does get a $115 doll for Christmas, it'll prove there really is a Santa Claus. Or that her parents have lost their minds. Or both.
Rick Epstein can be reached at RickEpstein@yahoo.com.